The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Can't Quite Commit: I Hate My Looks

Poor body image, commitment fear and emotional intimacy in close relationships

Though few of us are completely happy with our bodies, some of us clearly hate our body more than others. This issue has clear implications for our physical health (e.g., eating disorders) and our overall self-esteem. But does how we view our bodies impact our commitment within emotionally close relationships? Could people be damaging their own potential to be in a commited, emotionally satisfying relationship by strongly disliking their body?

Research headed by Thomas Cash, a psychology professor at Old Diminion University, indicates that the answers to the above questions are a resounding, "yes." But, although poor body self-esteem is associated with a general fear of social situations for men and women, it only is associated with "fear of intimacy" for women. Fear of intimacy reflects the extent to which someone is willing to be emotionally open within an intimate relationship, and is willing to commit within such a relationship. It does not directly measure a person's fear of physical intimacy, although that is very much likely to be associated with it.

In this study, 228 college students were privately and anonymously asked a wide range of questions about their attitudes and beliefs towards relationships and their own bodies. Of particular interest was the extent to which participants rated their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with 9 different body aspects (e.g, their face, their weight, their legs). These items were then tested to see if they were associated with the fear of intimacy questions, which as stated above, assess such things as willingness to open up emotionally and to commit to the relationship.

It was found that for women, but not men, dissatisfaction with one's physical appearance was associated with a greater fear of intimacy. In other words, the more a woman disliked how she looks, the more likely she was to have a wide range of problems in developing emotional closeness within a relationship, and to commit to a relationship.

Interestingly, this same effect was also found for the extent to which women, but not men, emphasized how much their physical appearance matters, such as feeling that their appearance is an important part of who they are. Thus, not only was fear of intimacy associated with not liking one's body for women, but so too was emphasizing their physical appearance.

As the authors note, these gender differences could be attributed to different gender expectations involving attractiveness. Sadly, a wide range of research shows that women (on average) face a greater pressure to be physically attractive. This is the case in basically every culture ever studied (with 1 or 2 exceptions). Thus, it could be that women, and not men, fear being close in a relationship when they dislike their body because they believe that it will just cause them to eventually be rejected (and hence hurt) by their partner.

Of interest also is that fear of intimacy has been found to be associated with a heightened propensity to find flaws in one's potential romantic partners, and to trust them less.

For women, body dissastification and fear of relationship commitment go hand in hand.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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